NEW ORLEANSTo paraphrase Madison Avenue, this is not your
fathers thermal imaging, said Yuri R. Parisky, MD,
associate professor of radiology, University of Southern California
Norris Cancer Center and Hospital. He was referring to a new form of
computer-enhanced thermal breast imaging that he and his colleagues
at USC are studying, along with investigators at the TRW Center for
Medical Image Analysis, Ogden, Utah, and Howard University,
The new techniquedigital thermal imaging and analysis (see illustration
)is being used as an adjunct to mammography to distinguish
benign from malignant lesions.
While physical examination and mammography are the primary methods
for detecting breast cancer, they lead to a high rate of benign
biopsies, Dr. Parisky said. More than 1.2 million breast biopsies
were performed in the United States in 1997 at a cost of several
billion dollars; about 800,000 of the lesions were benign.
Thermography was abandoned as a breast cancer screening tool in the
1970s when the Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project
established that the technique was neither reproducible nor
quantifiable, Dr. Parisky said. Since that time, several new
technologies have been developed as adjuncts to mammography,
including ultrasound, contrast-enhanced MR imaging,
scintimammography, and, most recently, an electrical impedance device.
But technical advances since the 1970s have given thermal imaging a
new life. Dr. Parisky said that digital thermography making use of a
newly developed algorithm could prove to be a simpler and less costly
complementary technique to mammography than some of the other recent
Digital thermal imaging quantifies the thermal emission of the breast
tissue as infrared energy that can be statistically analyzed on a
pixel-by-pixel basis by high-speed UNIX work stations. The scan takes
about 3.5 minutes for each breast and consists of about 103 frames
with a 2-second delay between frames; a thermal cooling challenge is
The minute variations in temperature recorded by thermal imaging are
related to vascular flow and can show abnormal vascular patterns
associated with malignancy, Dr. Parisky explained. Breast
cancer changes the way blood vessels react to normal stimulus,
he said. First we look at the breast in a static mode under
normal temperature; then we give a thermal challenge to see if there
are suspicious areas that react differently, ie, that cool
differently than normal breast tissue.
The statistical algorithm for use with digital thermal imaging was
developed from studies of 125 lesions in a group of 117 women who had
been referred for breast biopsy as a result of clinical examination
or mammography, Dr. Parisky said. Based on mammography or clinical
history, quadrant-sized regions of interest were defined.
Using computer-enhanced thermal breast imaging, temperature,
temperature differences, and cooling rate were determined, and the
magnitude of such features and their distribution among the data set
Each lesion was then re-evaluated for distinguishing thermographic
features, leaving data for that particular lesion out of the
algorithm pool, a method called the leave-one-out or jackknife technique.
Malignancies were found in 23% of the lesions11 in situ cancers
and 18 invasive cancers. Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC)
curves were then generated based on the features of the model. ROC
analysis allowed identification of the thermal imaging features with
the greatest diagnostic potential.
The true-positive rate for digital thermography using the algorithm
developed from the curves was 96%, the false-positive rate was 62%,
and the true-negative rate was 38%. Thus, Dr. Parisky
said, computer-assisted thermal imaging can aid in selecting
out women with benign lesions, with a very high (69%) capture rate
for those with malignancies. He said that this initial study
has been extended in a multicenter trial that has already enrolled
1,500 to 2,000 women.
This technology and algorithm may reduce the number of
unnecessary biopsies, without sacrificing accurate diagnosis of
malignancy, Dr. Parisky said. It has already stimulated
further work to determine the nature of the thermal emissions,
whether they are due to angiogenesis, metabolic activity, or an
inflammatory reaction in the breast.